About this Recording
8.572831 - ERKİN, U.C.: Köçekçe / Violin Concerto / Symphony No. 2 (Buswell, Istanbul State Symphony, Kuchar)

Ulvi Cemal Erkin (1906–72)
Symphony No. 2 • Violin Concerto • Köçekçe


In the year 1906, in Paris, a 19-year-old woman was awaiting the announcement of the Prix de Rome results with great excitement. This prize, given to support young French people in the fields of music and the fine arts, was the cause of great competition, especially among students at the Paris Conservatoire. The young woman, whose name was Nadia Boulanger, had made a name in a short space of time for her exceptional ability. She had worked with Gabriel Fauré, one of the best known musicians of the day, and had endeavoured to learn the fine details of hundreds of years of French music during her education at the Conservatoire. Unfortunately, she did not reach the final of the Prix de Rome that year, but was awarded second prize two years later. In subsequent years, her name would be renowned in the history of music as an exceptional teacher, her students coming from many different regions of the world, including Aaron Copland, Astor Piazzolla, Daniel Barenboim, Philip Glass and Dino Lipatti.

One of those who was a student of Nadia Boulanger at the end of the 1920s was Ulvi Cemal Erkin. He was born on 14th March 1906 in Istanbul, the last stop on the Orient Express, which departed from Paris. Those were confused times in his country, in Europe and even throughout the world; the empires of the 19th century were living out their last days. At the end of World War I, in 1918, not only the Ottoman Empire but also the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Tsarist Russia were to undergo radical change.

In fact, change in the fields of fine arts and music had begun long before this. Since Wagner, composers had been determined to strain the limits of chromaticism, to discover a new language for music and to dispense with tonality. Works such as Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande in 1902, and Strauss’ Salome, first performed in 1905, were forerunners of this quest. Le Sacré du Printemps, staged in Paris in 1913, and Schoenberg’s atonal works of the same period were to be striking examples of the point reached by the changes. However, while attempting to demolish the forms that had been long established in Western civilisation, naturally the accumulated knowledge of centuries was utilised and the way forward was sought in their own past.

In the Istanbul into which Ulvi Cemal Erkin was born, the music scene was very different from that in Europe. All the music being performed in palace circles and in the grand mansions of Istanbul was monophonic and modal. Most of the instruments in use came from Eastern origins. Folk music was live and based on uneven (aksak) rhythms which are rather complex for Westerners. Successive rhythms such as 5/8, 7/8 and 9/8 gave the works a different dynamism.

In 1828, in the time of Sultan Mahmut II, in addition to traditional music, as a result of the Westernisation undertaken by the Ottoman Empire, a military band was formed in the palace, called “Muzıka-i Hümayun” and Giuseppe Donizetti (1788–1856), older brother of Gaetano Donizetti, was brought in as its director. In this way, Turkish music, and the percussion instruments of the Janissary bands, which had been the origin of “Alla Turca” works by European composers in the 1700s, came under the influence of change coming from the West. Polyphonic music, under the auspices of the palace, began to be developed on Ottoman land, especially in Istanbul. During the 19th century, performances by visiting opera groups from Italy and concerts by soloists such as Franz Liszt and Henri Vieuxtemps, showed the city’s continuing interest in Western-style music. In the palace, there was a rapid increase in members of the imperial house receiving instruction in Western music and there were even some composers among them. However, considering the absence of any institution giving instruction to a wide section of the population, even in the field of traditional music, until 1917, the very slow growth of polyphonic music in Turkey was understandable.

Ulvi Cemal Erkin opened his eyes in such a musical environment; from childhood he grew up in a world full of sound, since his mother played the piano and his brother the violin. When he lost his father at the age of seven, the family moved to live with his grandfather. In those days, Ulvi Cemal began to study with foreign tutors who taught piano to the well-known families of Istanbul. His interest in and love of music continued throughout his secondary education. While studying at Galatasaray Lycée, one of the best schools in Istanbul, he made great advances in learning the piano.

The Ottoman Empire was in decline during those years. A series of wars following World War I had culminated in the formation of a new state, the Republic of Turkey, in 1923. The territory of the Empire that had been dispersed over a wide area, gave way to a nation state under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. This young country was in need of development, renewal and the correction of deficiencies in every sphere. In order for the revolution to be successful, the young generation needed to be well educated and then to apply their learning for their country. For this reason, it was decided to send able young people abroad on scholarships. One of those sent to Paris in the field of music was Ulvi Cemal Erkin, then 19 years old. Thus an educational period of five years began for the young man .

Ulvi Cemal Erkin spent the years 1925–30 in Paris. The city was suffering from negative economic effects following the war with Germany and Austria, but in one sense it resembled a cultural capital of Europe. Many artists coming from different geographical regions participated in the lively Paris scene, and a more simple and everyday artistic consensus emerged in opposition to romanticism and to Wagner. Ulvi Cemal Erkin was not slow to adapt to this world, which was quite foreign to him. In addition to improving his knowledge of French to the level necessary for his studies, he needed to prepare for acceptance into the Paris Conservatoire with many private lessons. At the Conservatoire he studied piano with Isidor Philipp and Camille Decreus, harmony with Jean Gallon, counterpoint with Noel Gallon, and took composition lessons from Nadia Boulanger after entering the École Normale de Musique at the end of the 1920s. Shortly thereafter Nadia Boulanger, who would soon be considered one of the legendary teachers of the 20th century, became foremost among those who influenced the young Erkin during his Paris years.

Returning to Turkey in 1930, Ulvi Cemal Erkin began work as a teacher of piano and harmony at the Musiki Muallim Mektebi in Ankara, the capital city of the Turkish Republic. This school, which had been established a short while earlier with the purpose of training music teachers, was to become the Ankara State Conservatoire a few years later, in accordance with the recommendations of Paul Hindemith, and would play a very important rôle in Ulvi Cemal Erkin’s life. He was Director of the school during the years 1949–51 and he would continue to work there without a break for about 42 years, training young Turkish musicians until his death in 1972.

Ulvi Cemal Erkin, together with four contemporary musicians born around the same time and receiving the same type of education, following the example of the “Russian Five”, are known as the “Turkish Five”. Cemal Reşit Rey (1904–85), Hasan Ferdi Alnar (1906–78), Ulvi Cemal Erkin (1906–72), Ahmed Adnan Saygun (1907–91) and Necil Kazım Akses (1908–99) took care to combine local elements with the contemporary music of the European countries in which they had been educated. They successfully established the foundations for contemporary Turkish music, providing an example for future generations of composers. If one compares the development of centuries-old Western art in new directions at different times with the emergence of the Turkish Five, one can better appreciate the significance of their achievement.

Elements of traditional and folk music are frequently heard in Ulvi Cemal Erkin’s works. Especially in slow movements, he uses a modal structure; in his early works naturally one can hear reflections of the late Romantic and Impressionist movements that were current in the Paris of the 1920s. He succeeded in creating his own individual language in his concertos and symphonic works, with his expert use of aksak tones and his sections featuring the improvisational aspects of Turkish music. He composed all types of music with expertise, ranging from pieces for solo instruments to works for large-scale symphonic orchestras.

The piece by Ulvi Cemal Erkin which is most frequently heard today both at home and abroad is Köçekçe, first performed on 1st February 1943 by the Presidential Symphony Orchestra conducted by Ernst Praetorius. The work takes its inspiration from the traditional köçek (male dancer in women’s clothing), an important component of Turkish recreational life, and was composed for a competition in 1942. Köçeks were essential elements of every gathering at which male performers danced to vocal and instrumental accompaniment, in the days when entertainment was separated for male and female groups. Köçekçe is a dance suite in which traditional percussion instruments enrich a large symphony orchestra and it is virtually a musical map of Turkey, incorporating interconnected dance tunes from throughout the country.

Following his Piano Concerto, Köçekçe, and his Symphony No. 1, Ulvi Cemal Erkin’s next major work was his Violin Concerto, composed during 1946–47. Consisting of three movements in the Western tradition of Sonata, Allegro and Rondo, it is a very modal work with its tonal harmony and a dominant tone in each movement. The concerto allows the soloist to display his/her musical and technical ability, while the taksim section of the last movement gives the feeling of improvisation that is so often encountered in traditional Turkish violin music.

The premiere of Ulvi Cemal Erkin’s Violin Concerto was to have taken place in 1947 at the Vienna Festival, but for various reasons that concert did not materialise and it was eventually performed on 2nd April 1949 at the opening of the Ankara Opera House, by the Presidental Symphony Orchestra conducted by the composer, with Lico Amar as soloist.

Ulvi Cemal Erkin completed his Symphony No. 1 in 1946 and it was performed in the same year; he began work on his Symphony No. 2 in 1948. He completed it three years later, in 1951; however, the orchestration was only finished in 1958. If one considers that he did not compose another symphony, Erkin’s Symphony No. 2 is the peak of his output in this sphere. As in his other works, the melodies emerging in modal style are expertly combined with Western forms. The second movement of the symphony consists of a theme and eight variations, resembling a passacaglia. On hearing the theme given by the bass instruments, the listener is immediately reminded of a prayer from a Mevlevi dervish ceremony. The orchestra gradually joins in until there is an explosion of sound in the middle of the movement, gradually decreasing just as it had built up, until silence remains. The beginning of the third movement is titled Allegro – Alla Köçekçe. In this movement, as in his dance suite Köçekçe, Erkin includes dance melodies that he had collected from all four corners of Anatolia. In answer to the assertion that he had taken the themes he used in Köcekçe from folk tunes, the final movement of Erkin’s Symphony No. 2 consists entirely of folk tunes he had discovered for himself. The work was first performed on 2nd July 1958 in Munich, by the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Karl Öhring.

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